Gordon Brown has resisted calls to express an opinion on whether or not the Scottish government was correct to grant a compassionate release to the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. He has made clear his views on issues such as England’s defeat of Australia to win the Ashes, so why not on this question of rather more public and international importance?
There is a constitutional reason, in that the decision whether or not to release someone on compassionate grounds rests with the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. He is an MSP and sits in the Scottish Parliament, and is not part of the UK government at all. How well would it be understood in our generally centralised political system that there were some things that the prime minister would like to do and cannot? Prime ministers are often loathe to accept this, let alone explain it to the public. Members of the UK government, therefore, such as the foreign secretary David Miliband, have been careful to observe a silence over what they think, saying that it is a matter for the Scottish government.
In addition to this constitutional point, there are also two political ones. For ministers to say now that they agreed with the decision would only exacerbate the argument with America over this question. To say now that they disagreed would invite the criticism that they should have said so beforehand, and that they should say what they think is right rather than waiting to find out whether it is popular.
Chris Patten, in the Financial Times today, disputes this, pointing out that Gordon Brown “is not being pressed to intervene; what he is asked for is his opinion on the wisdom of what has happened.” But this isn’t right: any time the prime minister expresses an opinion on a political matter, that amounts to an intervention of some sort. It is an inevitable part of having an important public role, as Prince Charles would confirm.
Secondly, Chris Patten adds to his argument a comparison with America. President Obama, he says, would find no reason to hold back if he disagreed with a decision taken in Florida or California: in which case, why not Gordon Brown?
The difference lies in the current fragility of the British constitutional arrangement. The allocation of powers to Scotland within the United Kingdom is not a settled matter, unlike the powers allocated to Florida or California. The government of Scotland is looking for every opportunity to increase its power and the chief opponent of this campaign is Gordon Brown himself. For Mr Brown to intervene in this issue (and it would be to intervene, not merely express an opinion) would be to risk opening up a bigger political issue which could do him even more harm. Who are these London politicians to tell us how we should administer our own system of criminal justice?
The UK currently has a half-built constitutional settlement, which affords some measure of devolution to some parts of the country but on a patchy and inconsistent basis. A robust and settled federal system for the UK would make it easier for the prime minister to express opinions and provide leadership for which he is currently looked to and unable to provide.